Sufism and the East Punjab Dalit assertion Part II — Ishtiaq Ahmed

 As long as men and women of conscience continue to speak out the truth, there is always hope

 As long as men and women of conscience continue to speak out the truth, there is always hope

By probing the Sufi connections of the social and cultural world of East Punjab Dalits, Ajay Bhardwaj has opened new vistas for us in West Punjab. After 65 years of a violent partition, we catch glimpses of the other part upholding the 1,000-year old common heritage. In the second documentary, Rabba Hun Kee Kariye (English title: Thus Departed Our Neighbours), the author tells the story of the partition violence as it affected the poorer sections of society. It revolves around four main characters: Professor Karam Singh Chouhan, the musician Puran Shahkoti, a Muslim survivor of the 1947 genocide, Hanif Muhammad, and an upper class Sikh Jaswinder Singh Dhaliwal. No review can ever do full justice to the creative art it has become in the form of larger-than-life visual images.

The film begins on a nostalgic note as a number of individuals deplore that the politics of partition communalised the question of language as well. It deprived the Punjabis of the beauty and aesthetics of Urdu — a language they assert is part of the historical Punjabi identity. I must say I was quite pleasantly surprised at the inclusive approach of those elders. It stands out in sharp contrast to Punjabi chauvinism that is making the rounds these days in some Pakistani circles.

The musician Puran Shahkoti sings Heer, the poetry of Bulleh Shah and other Sufi masters in a voice patently Punjabi — loud and powerful — easily ascending to the higher notes and then gracefully descending. Now, the character of the bard is intrinsic to traditional Punjabi culture. Shahkoti, however, emerges not as a stereotypical jester but as an extremely enlightened and well-informed individual who can speak with authority and confidence on a range of issues. Very eloquently, he makes the point that the Indian and Pakistani people are the closest to each other and India does not enjoy such close cultural affinity with any other nation. His haunting melodies are interspersed throughout the film. 

We also visit several mausoleums of Muslim Sufis, even when the local Muslim populations have long been gone or eliminated. Glimpses of Dalit Sufi activities are also constantly taking place as we move from one scene to another.

The extended interview with Professor Chouhan, a scholar in the best traditions of humanism, is something to cherish and remember. He tells how he learnt to read and write when a Muslim patwari from Ludhiana arrived in their village. He and his wife, Zebunnisa Begum Chughtai, were a childless couple, so they persuaded Chouhan’s father to let him come to their home and teach them to read and write. We learn that in accordance with the prejudices of those times, Sikhs and Hindus did not eat food cooked by Muslims, but she convinced him to eat her food, telling him that the ingredients had been obtained from Sikh and Hindu sources. In March 1947, Professor Chouhan was to study for an MA in Persian at the famous Oriental College, Lahore. He was witness to the firing in Lahore on March 4. His teacher, Professor Mustafa Hussain Bukhari, told him that such madness was expected as private communal armies had been recruited on all sides. At the time of the publication of the Radcliffe Award on August 17-18, he was in East Punjab and saw the slaughter of Muslims with his own eyes. Some of the scenes he describes are heart wrenching. One can see that deep scars have been inflicted on his memory by those scenes of total human degradation.

We also learn about the genocide-massacres of Muslims from Hanif Muhammad, who was only three at that time. He hails from the poorer service sections of Muslim society, as his aunt was a midwife. It seems that the frenzied mobs went away after taking out their morbid aggression. Muhammad has lived to tell that story and now is the custodian of the shrine of a Muslim saint where Hindus, Sikhs and the few Muslims who still live there congregate every Thursday. We learn that Hindu shopkeepers and Sikh peasants have made donations to construct a proper shrine. I met many Muslims from the non-landowning sections of society. Their services are always needed by village communities, and once the 1947 rioting was over, they were left alone.

Jasvinder Singh Dhaliwal, the scion of a powerful Sikh family, describes vividly and with great pain how the border at Bahadurgarh between British Punjab and the princely Malerkotla State ruled by a Muslim nawab became a killing field where thousands of Muslims perished as they tried to cross into state territory to escape the Sikh jathas (militias) pursuing them. During my field research in East Punjab, I conducted several interviews in the villages around Bahadurgarh and had noted that apart from some Sikh princely states, this border region between the then Ludhiana district and Malerkotla was the venue that Muslim loss of life was the greatest.

In a moral and philosophical sense, such research does not necessarily induce pessimism and despair because as long as men and women of conscience continue to speak out the truth, there is always hope. Very skilfully, and with great sensitivity and compassion, Bhardwaj contrasts the peace, harmony and amity of Punjab bequeathed by its best and noblest minds with the rioting of 1947 unleashed by politicians delirious with religious nationalism. The return of Sufism in the lives of the Dalits of East Punjab has meant that the old traditions of accommodation and synthesis are again at work.

Source: Daily Times (Pakistan)

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